Here are just some of the players who have received over 100 plate appearances in left field for the Boston Red Sox in the last five years:
Alejandro De Aza
Along with third base, left field has been perhaps position the Red Sox have had the most difficulty filling permanently since Manny Ramirez was traded to the Dodgers in 2008. The leader in games played in left for Boston since then is Daniel Nava. After him? Hanley Ramirez, then the previously mentioned McDonald. If the 2017 season looks to be both the year of Chris Sale and the year without David Ortiz, it holds one further and potentially more fulfilling promise as well: the year Andrew Benintendi takes over in left.
It’s always exciting when a young player breaks into the big leagues, and the Red Sox have certainly had their fair share of recent young stars, so perhaps Benintendi’s permanent presence in Boston’s lineup has been a bit undersold this off-season. Or perhaps we’ve all been in a constant state of “OMG CHRIS SALE.” Either way though, Benintendi’s ascendence not only fills a hole on the roster as old as my kids (one of whom told me yesterday, “Daddy, you’re not so cool.” How quickly they learn!), it puts the finishing touches on what could be the very best outfield in baseball.
Many teams have one good outfielder. Some have two. Very few have three. Last season the Red Sox, with Jackie Bradley in center and MVP runner-up Mookie Betts in right, had two. By WARP they were the two most valuable position players (i.e. hitters) on the roster. But as I said, having two good outfielders isn’t wholly uncommon. So while it’s true Boston had Mookie in right and Bradley in center, the 2016 Red Sox also sported a left field combination of Brock Holt (324 PAs), Chris Young (227), Benintendi (118), Swihart (74), Bryce Brentz (64), Rusney Castillo (8), and (yes there’s still one more) Ryan LaMarre (6). The Red Sox are to left field what the Dodgers are to starting pitching.
The (hopefully) permanent addition of Benintendi promises to correct that issue, but that leads to another more hopeful question: namely, how good an outfield will the Red Sox have with Benintendi replacing (mostly) Brentz/Castillo/LaMarre/etc?
The first answer to that question should probably go to PECOTA, Baseball Prospectus’s projection system, which thinks Benintendi will be good for 4.3 WARP in 2017. It has Betts pegged at 4.9 and Bradley at 1.8. You could argue that while Benintendi’s projection seems perhaps optimistic, Betts’ and Bradley’s projections represent sizable steps back. Even so, PECOTA shows a Red Sox outfield total of 11.0 wins above replacement. That would be extremely good! Especially so when you consider PECOTA’s innate conservatism. Last year Bradley was good for 3.7 and Betts for 6.9 so, if you’re straight up buying PECOTA’s projection, perhaps 11 WARP from three guys doesn’t sound that impressive.
Is it? Let’s take a look around the AL East to see. Start with the Orioles. They have Hyun-Soo Kim in left field (PECOTA projects 1.0 WARP), a soon-to-be-32 year old Adam Jones in center (2.2), and Mariner cast-off Seth Smith (1.1) in left. That’s three guys who don’t add up to Mookie’s projection alone. How about the Yankees? New York has what’s left of Jacoby Ellsbury in center field (0.9 WARP), Bret Gardner in left (2.0), and Aaron Judge (2.1) in right. That just barely beats Betts alone but doesn’t come close to Boston’s outfield total. Toronto has Kevin Pillar (1.3), Jose Bautista (3), and a left field platoon featuring Ezequiel Carrera (0.2) and Melvin Upton (0.1). So again, no. I could do the Rays too, but I’ll be kind and not.
So perhaps the 11.0 projection is really good. I went through the other teams and eyeballed their roster projections to see how Boston’s stacks up and I think there’s a good argument for the Benintendi/Bradley/Betts outfield as the best in baseball, at least as we sit here now.
Here’s a list of what, to my eyes, look to be the best 10 outfields in baseball, alphabetically by team.
I then went through Roster Resource and picked out each team’s three starting outfielders, then went through Baseball Prospectus 2017 (buy it!) and collected the added up their PECOTA projected WARPs. Remember, the Red Sox three outfielders project to exactly 11.0 WARP. Here’s how the other 10 outfields stack up:
1. Angels: 10.9 WARP
2. Marlins: 9.1
3. Pirates: 7.9
4. Nationals: 7.6
5. Cubs: 7.1
6. Dodgers: 6.6
7. Royals: 5.8
8. Cardinals: 4.8
9. Diamondbacks: 4.5
10. Rockies: 3.6
The Angels outfield of Mike Trout, Kole Calhoun, and Cameron Maybin is the only one that comes close to the Red Sox. And look how close they come! They’re effectively even, at a difference of 0.1 WARP. It should be pointed out that, since becoming a regular in 2012, five seasons ago, Trout has never put up a season with less than 8.5 WARP, so 7.7 is a conservative projection for him too. I’ll take the over. Always take the over on Mike Trout. Calhoun has beat 2.2 WARP two of the last three seasons, though last season was the one season he didn’t. Maybin is Maybin, and 1.0 WARP seems as reasonable as anything. In the end here, we can see that perhaps Trout puts up 11 WARP by himself, and maybe Calhoun has another three win season in him, but the Angels are capped out not far beyond their projection. The Red Sox though, well, it doesn’t take a huge leap to see Betts putting up a season as good or even better than he did last year. As fantastic as he was last season, the aging curve says he should be getting better. The same can be said of Bradley.
That leaves Benintendi, who could struggle in his first full season in the majors. It wouldn’t be unheard of, certainly. The player we keep hearing him compared to is Michael Conforto of the Mets, a similar player who came up early, had success toward the end of the season, and then struggled in his first full season in the bigs. And that may happen for Benintendi. But Benintendi, even if similar, isn’t Conforto. They are different people.
But even if Benintendi does struggle this season, like Conforto, that doesn’t obfuscate the long-term outlook for the Red Sox. In essence, every team would love to have Mike Trout. But there is only one Trout. The Red Sox have the next best thing in Mookie Betts, and then they go two better by surrounding him with Bradley and Benintendi. That’s what PECOTA says is the best outfield in baseball. In 162 games we’ll see if PECOTA is correct. But from here, right now, where we sit, it’s hard to say it’s wrong.
Photo by Evan Habeeb/USA Today Sports Images